Tag Archives: Lavonta Williams

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams

WichitaLiberty.TV: The need for reform at Wichita City Hall

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: An episode this week at the Wichita city council meeting highlights the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita. We’ll examine a few incidents and see if there’s a way we can reform Wichita city government so that it is capitalism friendly instead of crony friendly. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 69, broadcast December 21, 2014.

Campaign contribution stacking in Wichita

Those seeking favors from Wichita City Hall use campaign contribution stacking to bypass contribution limits. This has paid off handsomely for them, and has harmed everyone else.

Not long ago a person who is politically active wrote a letter that was published in the Wichita Eagle. It criticized the role of campaign contributions in federal elections, noting “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” Later the letter held this: “Locally, I understand that elections for the Wichita City Council underwent ideal, nonpartisan campaign-finance reform years ago, and that these limits are scrupulously practiced.”

The writer is correct, but only superficially. Our campaign contribution limits for city and school board offices are relatively small. What we find, however, is that the cronies, that is, the people who want stuff from city hall, stack contributions using family members and employees.

Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Stacked campaign contributions received by James Clendenin from parties associated with Key Construction. Click for larger version.
Here’s how a handful of cronies stack campaign contributions. In 2012 council members James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run again for their offices in spring 2013. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, two groups of related parties accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents for an entire year. A group associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000 — $4,000 to Williams, and $3,000 to Clendenin. Another group of people associated with movie theater owner Bill Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The casual observer wouldn’t realize this stacking of campaign contributions by looking at campaign finance reports. That’s because for city offices, the name of the company a contributor works for isn’t required. Industry and occupation are required, but these aren’t of much help. Further, contribution reports are not filed electronically, so the information is not easy to analyze. Some reports are even submitted using handwriting, and barely legible handwriting at that.

So it’s not easy to analyze campaign contributions for Wichita city offices. It takes a bit of effort to unpack the stacking. You have to see a name and investigate who that person is. When you do that, you might find that a man from Valley Center who list his occupation and industry as Manager and Aviation Subcontractor is married to someone who lists her occupation and industry as Director of Marketing. Investigating her reveals that she is an executive of Key Construction.

That company, Key Construction, is a prominent company in Wichita. It is an example of a company that seeks to earn outsized profits through the political system rather than by meeting customer needs in the market. Profits through cronyism, that is. Here’s an example. In August 2011 the Wichita city council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Let me make sure you understand that. Carl Brewer, Lavonta Williams, and James Clendenin were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of your tax money to reward their benefactors through a no-bid contract. Since then reforms have been implemented to prevent this. Hopefully the reforms will work. I am skeptical.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted for no-bid contracts for Key.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted for no-bid contracts for Key.
In 2012 there was another incident involving Key Construction that show the need for campaign finance reform. Key and another construction company were engaged in a dispute as to who should build the new Wichita airport. The city council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner to decide the issue. Given all the campaign contributions Key was making at the time, and given the mayor’s well-known friendship with Dave Wells of Key Construction, can you guess who was awarded the contract? And can you guess whose contract was more expensive for taxpayers?

So back to the letter in the newspaper, which held: “Corporations don’t spend money on politics because they are patriotic; rather, the companies expect a financial return.” I’m not going to defend cronyism at the federal level. It exists and it is harmful. But I would like to let the writer of the letter know that cronyism also exists in Wichita city government. In fact, it may be worse in Wichita. At the federal level, Congress usually passes laws that benefit an entire industry — say the sugar industry or banks — to the detriment of consumers and taxpayers. (Sometimes the benefits are quite specific. American Enterprise Institute reports that the just-passed omnibus bill contains a section that provides protection from an Obamacare provision for exactly one entity: Blue Cross Blue Shield. Conservative writer Yuval Levin explained: “This section is, simply put, a special favor for Blue Cross/Blue Shield allowing them to count ‘quality improvement’ spending as part of the medical loss ratio calculation required of them under Obamacare. And it’s made retroactive for four years, saving them loads of money.”)

That’s bad enough. Here in Wichita, however, the cronyism is more concentrated and personal. The links between campaign contributions and handouts from city hall is much more direct. We should insist that the city council stop picking the pocket of your fellow man so it can give the proceeds to campaign contributors. Campaign finance reform can help.

In Wichita, the need for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

  • The council voted to give a movie theater operator a no-interest and low-interest loan, after having already received the benefit of tax increment financing.
  • A minister dabbling in real estate development made a large contribution to his council representative just before he asked the city council for tax increment financing.
  • The council voted to give a construction company a no-bid contract for a parking garage. When later put out for competitive bid, the same company won the contract, but with a bid 21 percent less costly to taxpayers.
  • Executives of a Michigan construction company made contributions to the campaign of a city council member just before and after the council voted to give the company and its local partner a huge construction contract.
  • When a group of frequent campaign contributors wanted to win a contest for the right to build an apartment project, the city’s reference-checking process was a sham. City and other government officials were listed as references without their knowledge or consent, and none of the people listed as references were actually contacted.
  • A frequent campaign contributor, according to the Wichita Eagle, “represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city ‘s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza.” City officials expressed varying degrees of displeasure. But it wasn’t long before David Burk was receiving taxpayer subsidy again from the city council.
  • The council voted to grant $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness to frequent campaign contributors and the mayor’s fishing buddy.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer has voted to send millions to Key, including overpriced no-bid contracts.
What is the common thread running through these incidents? Council members have voted to enrich their significant campaign contributors. Each of these are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita. The Wichita Eagle has reported on some of these issues — sometimes in depth, sometimes in passing, but some have escaped notice. The editorial page of the newspaper sometimes takes notice, but is rarely critical of the council or mayor.

Third, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

Importantly: Will the Wichita city council prop up a competitor to my company with economic development incentives that place my company at severe disadvantage?

Wichita's mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
Wichita’s mayor sells his barbeque sauce at movite theaters owned by a campaign contributor who receives city taxpayer subsidies.
We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. This is because for Kansas municipal and school district elections, only personal contributions may be made. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses and children, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits. For two examples of how companies use family members, employees, and friends to stack up campaign contributions, see Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (up to the current limits) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, townships, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it collects valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election to let the people vote whether the ordinance should become law.

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Some incidents

warren-bailout-poses-dilemmaIn 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.
Campaign contributions to Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams from an applicant for tax increment financing.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table compiled from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
In 2011 nearly all council members approved a no-bid contract for this garage. It was later re-bid at a much lower price.
What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Of interest to current mayoral politics: In 2012 while Jeff Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

Michigan contractors headline 500These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Jeff Longwell vote to help Michigan CompanyThen on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

For Wichita’s Williams, $1.33 per month is too much

Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) is a supporter of the proposed one cent per dollar Wichita sales tax. She has also spoken of her concern for Wichita’s low-income families, as she did in November 2013 when the Wichita City Council voted to increase water rates. City documents indicated that the average residential bill would rise by $1.33 per month for those who use modest amounts of water.

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
According to the meeting minutes, Williams said this:

Council Member Williams stated she realizes that some may think that $1.33 is not that big of an increase, but for so many of our constituents, it is quite an increase for them especially those who are on a fixed income. Stated this is concerning to her and appreciates staff looking at all options and are kicking off a program that will help those who need assistance from the City. Stated she realizes as a City that we have to continue moving forward and look at our infrastructure.

I wonder: When Williams voted in favor of the Wichita sales tax ballot placement, did she understand that anyone who spends $133.00 per month on taxable purchases will see a $1.33 rise in their monthly sales tax expense? Recall that Kansas applies sales tax to food, although there is a possibility of receiving a rebate. The rebate is implemented through a nonrefundable income tax credit.

Here’s something else: Since Williams applauded the formation of a payment assistance program for those who can’t afford their water bills, I wonder if she will propose a similar program for those who can’t afford a higher sales tax?

For Wichita sales tax, concern over conflicts of interest

Supporters of a proposed sales tax in Wichita promise there will be no conflicts of interest when making spending decisions. That would be a welcome departure from present city practice.

"Yes Wichita" website.
“Yes Wichita” website.
In November Wichita voters will decide on a new one cent per dollar sales tax, part to be used for economic development, specifically job creation. “Yes Wichita” is a group that supports the sales tax. Language on its website reads: “Conflict-of-interest policies will prohibit anyone from participating in decisions in which there is any self-interest.” The page is addressing the economic development portion of the proposed sales tax. It’s part of an effort to persuade Wichita voters that millions in incentives will be granted based on merit instead of cronyism or the self-interest of politicians, bureaucrats, and committee members.

The problem is that while the city currently has in place laws regarding conflicts of interest, the city does not seem willing to observe them. If the proposed sales tax passes, what assurances do we have that the city will change its ways?

Following, from October 2013, is one illustration of Wichita city hall’s attitude towards conflicts of interest and more broadly, government ethics.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Claims of future transparency of Wichita tax money spending

Claims by boosters of a proposed Wichita sales tax that the city will be transparent in how money is spent must be examined in light of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

When a city council member apologizes to bureaucrats because they have to defend why their agencies won’t disclose how taxpayer money is spent, we have a problem. When the mayor and most other council members agree, the problem is compounded. Carl Brewer won’t be mayor past April, but the city council member that apologized to bureaucrats — Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) — may continue serving in city government beyond next year’s elections. Wichita City Manager Robert Layton will likely continue serving for the foreseeable future.

Why is this important? Supporters of the proposed Wichita sales tax promise transparency in operations and spending. But requests for spending records by the city’s quasi-governmental agencies are routinely rebuffed. The city supports their refusal to comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. Many of the people presently in charge at city hall and at agencies like Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition will still be in charge if the proposed sales tax passes. What assurances do we have that they will change their attitude towards citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent?

Following, from December 2012, an illustration of the city’s attitude towards citizens’ right to know.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita’s blatant waste, Transforming Wichita, and how you can help

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Let’s ask that Wichita trim its blatant waste of tax dollars before asking for more. We’ll look back at a program called Transforming Wichita. Then: We need to hold campaigns accountable. I’ll give you examples why, and tell how you can help. View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 57, broadcast September 7, 2014.

‘Transforming Wichita’ a reminder of the value of government promises

When Wichita voters weigh the plausibility of the city’s plans for spending proposed new sales tax revenue, they should remember this is not the first time the city has promised results and accountability.

Do you remember Transforming Wichita? According to the city, “Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita.”

In more detail, the city website proclaimed: “TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.”

At the end of this article I present the complete page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007. That’s just seven years ago. There are officeholders (Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, City Council member Jeff Longwell, City Council member Lavonta Williams) and many bureaucrats still in office from that year. It’s not ancient history.

Some of the most frequently-mentioned concepts in this document are:

  • performance
  • accountability
  • trust
  • confidence
  • measure and report

Wichita spending data.
Wichita spending data.
The document mentions “supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners.” That promise was made seven years ago. Today, do you know what you get when you ask the City of Wichita for spending records? The city can supply data of only limited utility. When I asked for spending records, what was supplied to me was data in pdf form, and as images, not text. It would be difficult — beyond the capability of most citizens — to translate the data to useful format. Even if someone translated the reports to computer-readable format, I don’t think the data would be very useful. This is a serious defect in the city’s transparency efforts.

How does Wichita compare to other jurisdictions in this regard? Many governmental agencies post their checkbooks on their websites, having mastered this aspect of accountability and trust years ago. Not so the City of Wichita.

Speaking of websites: The new and “improved” wichita.gov website is actually less useful than the city’s website in 2007. For more on this see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Regarding performance: One of the most important functions city leaders say they perform is economic development, specifically the creation of jobs. Last year when the Wichita Eagle asked for job creation figures, it reported this:

“It will take us some time to pull together all the agenda reports on the five-year reviews going back to 2003. That same research will also reveal any abatements that were ‘retooled’ as a result of the five-year reviews,” city urban development director Allen Bell said.

One might have thought that the city was keeping records on the number of jobs created on at least an annual basis for management purposes, and would have these figures ready for immediate review. If the city had these figures available, it would be evidence of trustworthiness, performance, accountability, and measuring and reporting. But the city isn’t doing this.

Regarding values for dollars spent: During the past decade Wichita spent $247 million on the Aquifer Storage and Recovery Program, or ASR. As that project was contemplated, Wichita was told there was sufficient water for the next 50 years. We should ask: What value did we receive for those dollars?

Speaking of accountability: Much of the money used to pay for the ASR project was borrowed in the form of long-term debt. Now we are told that long-term borrowing to pay for a new water supply would be bad fiscal management. So was it was prudent and advisable to borrow over $200 million for water projects during the last decade? Who do we hold accountable for that decision, if what city leaders now say is correct?

Here’s a page from the city’s website as captured on November 10, 2007:

Transforming Wichita

Transforming Wichita is the journey by which we are fundamentally changing the way we measure, report and perform the work of delivering services to the citizens of Wichita. Our Vision:

  • For Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play (as envisioned in Visioneering Wichita).
  • For Wichita City government to be a model of world class city governance — where citizens are getting the best possible value for their dollars and the City has the public’s confidence and trust. For this vision to be attained, we have to adapt to change!

twWhile we are doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent, resting on our laurels from past successes. The paradox is that we must retain faith that the future is bright, while being willing to face challenges of our current situation. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today. We must position ourselves for the future.

We will do this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Focuses on results
  • Understands what results matter most to their customers
  • Makes performance matter
  • Moves decision-making down and out to the front-line, closest to customers; and
  • Fosters an environment of excellence, inclusiveness, accountability, learning and innovation.

Through Transformation Wichita:

  • We deliver outstanding results that matter to our customers and are trustworthy stewards of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using a balanced scorecard that shows progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities, so that performance matters; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers; we will work with colleagues in an environment where learning enriches us and innovation expands our potential.

More about TW

TW is the journey by which we will be fundamentally changing the way we deliver services to the citizens of Wichita. Our vision is for Wichita to be a premiere Midwestern city where people want to visit, live and play and for the city government to be a model of world class city governance where citizens receive the best possible value for their tax dollars and have confidence in their city government.

While the City is doing a lot of things right, we can’t be complacent. We must be willing to challenge every aspect of how we’re doing things today and position ourselves for the future.

We will accomplish this by transforming City government into a high performance organization that:

  • Delivers outstanding results that matter to our customers and is a trustworthy steward of the funds with which citizens have entrusted us;
  • We utilize team work and the best business processes, supported by modernized information systems that facilitate collaboration with our partners;
  • We measure and report on our work, using processes that show progress and results in how we carry out programs and activities; and
  • We engage in work that produces results that matter for our customers.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Waste, economic development, and water issues.

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichitans ought to ask city hall to stop blatant waste before it asks for more taxes. Then, a few questions about economic development incentives. Finally, how should we pay for a new water source, and is city hall open to outside ideas? View below, or click here to view at YouTube. Episode 53, broadcast July 27, 2014.

Wichita’s vampires and monsters

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: The City of Wichita urges citizens to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation. Originally broadcast June 29, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

For more on this issue, see “Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.”

For Wichita leaders, novel alternatives on water not welcome

A forum on water issues featured a presentation by Wichita city officials and was attended by other city officials, but the city missed a learning opportunity.

This week Kansas Policy Institute held an educational form on the issues of water in the Wichita area. The event featured four presentations with questions and answers, with most being about one hour in length.

This was a welcome and important event, as the city is proposing to spend several hundred million dollars on an increased water supply. It is likely that citizens will be asked to approve a sales tax to pay this cost. It’s important that we get this right, and citizen skepticism is justified. The city has recently spent $247 million on a water project that hasn’t yet proved its value over a reasonably long trial. A former mayor has told audiences that he was assured Wichita had adequate water for the next 50 years. It was eleven years ago he was told that. Wichita’s current mayor has admitted that the city has not spent what was needed to maintain our current infrastructure, instead pushing those costs to the future.

Most of the information that Wichitans have access to is provided by city government. So when an independent group produces an educational event on an important topic, citizens might hope that Wichita city officials take part.

And, Wichita city officials did take part. The second of the four presentations was delivered by Wichita public works director Alan King and council member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita). City governmental affairs director Dale Goter and council member Lavonta Williams were in the audience.

But after this presentation ended, the four city officials left.

What did they miss? They missed two additional presentations, or half the program. The city officials did not hear a presentation by Dr. Art Hall of Kansas University which presented novel ideas of using markets for water resources. Particularly, how Wichita could secure increased water supply by purchasing water rights and using the infrastructure it already has in place.

In the final presentation, the audience asked questions that the presenter was not able to answer. City officials like public works director King would have been able to provide the answers.

I understand that city council members are part-time employees paid a part-time salary. Some have outside jobs or businesses to run. But that’s not the case with the city’s public works director or its governmental affairs director.

Come to think of it, where was the city manager? Assistant city manager? Other council members? The city’s economic development staff?

Where was Mayor Carl Brewer?

If you’ve attended a city council meeting, you may have to sit through up to an hour of the mayor issuing proclamations and service awards before actual business starts. Fleets of city bureaucrats are in the audience during this time.

But none of these would spend just one hour listening to a presentation by a university professor that might hold a solution to our water supply issue.

I understand that city officials might not be the biggest fans of Kansas Policy Institute. It supports free markets and limited government.

But city officials tell us that they want to hear from citizens. The city has gone to great lengths to collect input from citizens, implementing a website and holding numerous meetings.

About 70 people attended the KPI forum. Citizens were interested in what the speakers had to say. They sat politely through the presentation by the two city officials, even though I’m sure many in the audience were already familiar with the recycled slides they’d seen before.

But it appears that Wichita city officials were not interested in alternatives that weren’t developed by city hall. They can’t even pretend to be interested.

Forget the vampires. Let’s tackle the real monsters.

Public service announcements on Facebook and Wichita City Channel 7 urge Wichitans to take steps to stop “vampire” power waste. But before hectoring people to introduce inconvenience to their lives in order to save small amounts of electricity, the city should tackle the real monsters of its own creation.

Public service announcement crawler on Wichita's cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
Public service announcement crawler on Wichita’s cable channel network, June 17, 2014.
People are probably vaguely aware that many modern electrical and electronic devices consume electricity even when switched off. One source estimates that a cell phone charger consumes 0.26 watts of electrical power even when a phone is not plugged in. While in sleep mode, a flat panel computer display consumes 1.39 watts. A clock radio uses 2.01 watts. A microwave oven while not in use and with its door closed uses 3.08 watts. (These are average values.) A large Samsung smart television on standby uses 0.3 watts.

While appearing to be wasteful, this “vampire” power consumption often has a benefit. If you unplug your clock radio when you leave for work in the morning, you save a few dozen watts of power. But, you have to reset the clock when you want to use it again. If I unplug my Samsung smart television, I’ll probably have to reprogram it to my preferences. If I want save the power my microwave oven wastes, I’ll have to wrench my back lifting it out of the way so I can reach the outlet it plugs in to. That action, naturally, unleashes a cloud of dust bunnies to dirty my counters and floor.

Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding "vampire" power waste.
Wichita city government Facebook page public service advice regarding “vampire” power waste.
Nonetheless, the City of Wichita uses its Facebook page and cable television network to urge its citizens take steps like these in order to save small amounts of electricity.

How much electricity do you suppose a city street light consumes? It depends on the type of light, but common street lights use from 100 to 200 watts. During the hours when the sun does not shine, we’re generally willing to pay for that in order to obtain the benefits of lighted streets and sidewalks.

But when street lights are burning in the middle of a day, they provide absolutely no value. Street lights turned on during the day provide none of the convenience of “vampire” power usage, such as not needing to reset your clocks and move your microwave oven every day.

Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
Bench lights and street lights in downtown Wichita switched on in the middle of the day.
So while the City of Wichita uses its television channel to hector citizens into adding inconvenience to their lives in order to save vanishingly small amounts of electricity, the city apparently has no misgivings about using large amounts of electricity to needlessly illuminate the noonday sky, week after week.

As I’ve shown, the city often has street lights turned on at noon on days with no clouds in the sky. (See here for examples.) Yesterday dozens of city street lights were turned on at 2:30 in the afternoon on a sunny day for many blocks in downtown Wichita. This is not an isolated mistake. It is a pattern. (Even if it is cloudy and raining, the street lights add no discernible illumination during daylight.)

There’s something else. Each of us can choose the balance between “vampire” power waste and inconvenience based on our own values. If we choose to use “vampire” power in order to add convenience to our lives, we have to pay for it.

Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
Two street lights in downtown Wichita, June 20, 2014.
But the Wichita city hall bureaucrats who burn street lights in the noonday sun week after week are spending your money, not theirs.

(Yes, city hall bureaucrats pay taxes to the city just like you and I, so their tax money is also wasted. But because the cost of this waste is spread over the entire city, the motivation for any one person to take steps to eliminate the waste is small. Especially if, like a city hall bureaucrat would, you’d have to actually work in order to achieve savings. But these same bureaucrats and politicians urge you to work harder in your home in order to save small amounts of “vampire” electricity.)

The wasteful expenditures on street lights I’ve been illustrating for several weeks are located in districts of the city represented by Janet Miller and Lavonta Williams. Both express concern for the environment and criticize the purported harm man has caused the earth by emitting greenhouse gases. Here’s an opportunity for them to act on their beliefs.

WichitaLiberty.TV: The harm of cronyism, local and national

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Does Wichita have a problem with cronyism? The mayor, city council, and bureaucrats say no, but you can decide for yourself. Then, from LearnLiberty.org, the harm of cronyism at the national level. Episode 48, broadcast June 22, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In Wichita, the attitude of some elected officials needs adjustment

In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: Attitudes of Wichita government leaders towards capitalism reveal a lack of understanding. Is only a government-owned hotel able to make capital improvements? Then, two examples of the disdain elected officials express towards their constituents who don’t agree with them. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

WichitaLiberty.TV: Alternatives to raising taxes, how to become involved in politics, and bad behavior by elected officials

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV: Wichita voters tell pollsters that they prefer alternatives to raising taxes. Then, how can you get involved in politics? A deadline is approaching soon. Finally, some examples of why we need to elect better people to office. Episode 44, broadcast May 25, 2014. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Wichita, again, fails at government transparency

At a time when Wichita city hall needs to cultivate the trust of citizens, another incident illustrates the entrenched attitude of the city towards its citizens. Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency and citizens’ right to know.

At its May 20, 2014 meeting the Wichita City Council considered approval of a sublease by Shannon No. 2, LLC. The subject property had received subsidy from the city under an economic development program, which is why council approval of the sublease was required. I’ll cover the economics of the lease and its importance to public policy in another article. For now, the important issue is the attitude of the city towards government transparency and citizen participation.

Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
Wichita city council agenda packet, as provided to the public.
In the agenda packet — that’s the detailed and often lengthy supplement to the council meeting agenda — some information regarding the Shannon lease was redacted, as you can see in the accompanying illustration. This piqued my interest, so I asked for the missing details.

Timing

The agenda packet is often made available Thursday afternoon, although sometimes it is delayed until Friday or even Monday. I sent an email message to the city’s chief information officer at 11:16 pm Thursday. After the message worked its way through several city departments, I received the information at 5:06 pm Monday. Since city council meetings are Tuesday morning, that left little time for research and contemplation.

This isn’t the first time citizens have been left with little information and even less time before council meetings. I was involved in an issue in 2008 where there was little time for citizens — council members, too — to absorb information before a council meeting. About this incident, former Wichita Eagle editorial board editor Randy Brown wrote this in a letter to the Eagle:

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue. Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

little-time-review-warren-loan-termsThe Wichita officials involved in this matter were council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). Longwell’s behavior and attitude is part of a pattern, because in another incident in the same year the Wichita Eagle reported “Wichita City Council members and the public got a first look at the contracts that could send a $6 million loan to the owners of the Old Town Warren Theatre just hours before today’s scheduled vote on the matter.” (Little time to review Warren terms, July 1, 2008)

That article quoted council member Longwell thusly: “It’s unlikely many residents would read the full contract even if it had been made public earlier.” This attitude is common among Wichita elected officials and bureaucrats, in my experience. The city formally lobbies the Kansas Legislature opposing any expansion of the Kansas Open Records Act, for example.

Consent agenda

The Shannon item was placed on the consent agenda. This is where items deemed to be non-controversial are voted on in bulk, perhaps two dozen or more at a time. Unless a council member asks to have an item “pulled” for discussion and a possible vote separate from the other consent items, there will be no discussion of any issues.

In 2012 there was an issue on the consent agenda that I felt deserved discussion. I researched and prepared an article at For Wichita’s Block 1 garage, public allocation is now zero parking spaces. At the council meeting, then-council member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) requested that I be able to present my findings to the council. But Mayor Carl Brewer and all five other city council members disagreed. They preferred to proceed as though the issue didn’t exist or was non-controversial. The message — the attitude — was that no time should be spent receiving information on the item. See For Wichita City Council, discussion is not wanted.

Wichita city officials, including Mayor Carl Brewer, say they are proud of the open and transparent city government they have created. But this episode, as well as others described in In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency, lets everyone know that transparency is dispensed, and accountability accepted, at the whim of the mayor, city council, and their bureaucratic enablers.

On his Facebook page, Clinton Coen wrote this about his city council representative James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and this incident:

“I am once again ashamed of my City Councilman. Councilman Clendenin should have stood alongside his colleague, Councilman O’Donnel, and allowed a citizen to address his concerns on an agenda item. All Mr. Clendenin had to do was say “second” and Mr. Weeks could have addressed the council, provided that a majority of the council voted to allow it. Instead, Mr. Clendenin chose to censor someone that has a differing opinion. By bringing it to a vote, accountability would have been created, instead the remainder of the council chose to take the cowardly path.”

Why redacted in the first place?

As shown in the earlier illustration, the city redacted a large chunk of information from the agenda packet that it made available to the public. The city did — after some time — positively It's easy to say value transparencyrespond to my request for the complete document. Which begs these questions: Why did the city feel that some information needed to be kept secret? Did city council members have access to the redacted information? Did any members of the public besides myself ask for the information? How many citizens might have been discouraged from asking by fear of the the hassle of asking city hall for information like this?

There’s also the consideration that the citizens of Wichita are parties to this transaction. How well these incentive programs work and what effect they have on the Wichita economy is an important matter of public policy. Without relatively complete information, citizens are not in a position to make judgments.

Cost

Often council members and bureaucrats complain that providing information to citizens is a financial burden to the city. But in this case, I’m sure the city would have been dollars ahead if it had simply published the complete lease in the agenda packet. My request bounced around several city offices — three that I know of — and I imagine that each handling of my request added cost.

Attitude

The City of Wichita is proud to be an open and transparent governmental agency, its officials say. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer often speaks in favor of government transparency. wichita-wins-transparency-award-2013For example, in his State of the City address for 2011, he listed as an important goal for the city this: “And we must provide transparency in all that we do.” When the city received an award for transparency in 2013, a city news release quoted Wichita City Manager Robert Layton:

“The City Council has stressed the importance of transparency for this organization,” City Manager Robert Layton said. “We’re honored to receive a Sunny Award and we will continue to empower and engage citizens by providing information necessary to keep them informed on the actions their government is taking on their behalf.”

The incidents describe above, combined with others, demonstrate that it’s easy for officials to say they value transparency and accountability. The actual delivery, however, is difficult for our current leaders.

Despite the proclamations of the mayor and manager, the city needs a change of attitude towards government transparency. The incident described in this article is one more example of a divergence between the proclamations of city officials and their acts. It’s an attitude problem. All city hall has to do is get a new attitude.

For more on this topic, see A transparency agenda for Wichita.

Wichita City Council fails to support informing the taxed

Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.
Example of a Community Improvement District sign on the door of a merchant.
It’s enlightening to look back at some examples of discussion at the Wichita City Council so that we remember the attitudes of council members and city bureaucrats towards citizens. In the following example, the council was considering whether Wichitans and visitors should be notified of the amount of extra sales tax — or even the existence of extra tax — they will pay when shopping at merchants located within Community Improvement Districts (CIDs). Did the council side with special interests or citizens?

At its December 7, 2010 meeting, the Wichita City Council considered whether stores in CIDs should be required to post signs warning shoppers of the amount of extra tax being charged. Some, including myself, felt that shoppers should have this information before deciding to shop in such a store.

In discussion from the bench, Jeff Longwell, who was Vice Mayor at the time, said it is important that we disclose these “types of collections” as they are taxing the public. But in a convoluted stretch of reasoning, he argued that posting a sign with a specific tax rate would be confusing to citizens: (View video below, or click here to view at YouTube.

“I was leaning to putting a percentage on there, but again if we have a website that spells out the percentage, I think that’s important. And number two, I guess I would be a little bit concerned how we would work through it — if you put a percentage on a development over here in downtown that’s only collecting one percent and someone walks in and sees a CID tax collected of one percent and just assumes every CID tax is one percent it would be confusing when they go to the next one, and it may scare them off if they see one that’s two percent, they’ll never go to one that’s maybe only one percent. So I think that proves an additional concern for some confusion. So having something on the front door that says we are financing this with a CID tax, where they’re made well aware that it’s collected there, I think to try and include a percentage might even add some confusion as we collect different CID taxes around the city.”

Longwell is content to tell people as they enter a store that they’re being taxed, but not how much tax they’re required to pay. We can summarize his attitude as this: Giving citizens too much information will confuse them.

Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp
Wichita City Council Member Sue Schlapp
Council Member Sue Schlapp (who left office in 2011 after reaching the city’s limit on length of service) said she supported transparency in government:

“Every tool we can have is necessary … This is very simple: If you vote to have the tool, and then you vote to put something in it that makes the tool useless, it’s not even any point in having the vote, in my opinion. Either we do it, and we do it in a way that it’s going to be useful and accomplish its purpose. … I understand totally the discussion of letting the public know. I think transparency is absolutely vital to everything we do in government. So I think we’re doing that very thing.”

Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams
Schlapp understood and said what everyone knows: That if you arm citizens with knowledge of high taxes, they’re likely to go somewhere else to shop. Well, maybe except for women, as Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), noted that women would still want to shop at a store in a CID if it is “very unique.”

Mayor Carl Brewer said he agreed with Schlapp and the other council members.

In the end, the council unanimously voted for requiring signage that reads, according to minutes from the meeting: “This project made possible by Community Improvement District Financing and includes the website.”

This sign doesn’t mention anything about the rate of extra sales tax that customers of CID merchants will pay. In fact, reading the sign, shoppers are not likely to sense that they’ll be paying any additional tax. The sign almost makes the Community Improvement District seem benevolent, not predatory.

Contrary to Schlapp’s assertions, this is not anything like government transparency.

Here’s what is really troubling: What does it say about Wichita’s economic development strategy that if you fully inform citizens and visitors on what they’re asked to pay, it renders the tool “useless,”as Schlapp contended?

It’s just another example of the council and staff being totally captured by special interests, preferring advancing the interests of their cronies rather than protecting citizens.

In Wichita, if you don’t like it, just don’t go there

As Wichita city officials prepare a campaign to raise the sales tax in Wichita, let’s recall some council members’ attitude towards citizens.

At a Wichita City Council meeting in August 2012, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

If you don't like this statue, just don't go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.
If you don’t like this statue, just don’t go there, says Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams. But, you must pay for it.
The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

Wichita City Council to consider entrenching power of special interest groups

city-council-chambers-sign-800On Tuesday the Wichita City Council will consider a resolution in support of the status quo for city elections. Which is to say, the council will likely express its support for special interest groups whose goals are in conflict with the wellbeing of the public.

The proposed resolution expresses support for retaining the present system in which city council and school board members are elected in non-partisan elections held in the spring. Candidates for all other offices (county commissioner, district court judge, district attorney, county clerk, county treasurer, register of deeds, sheriff, state representative, state senator, governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, insurance commissioner, state board of education member, president, U.S. senator, U.S. representative, etc.) compete in partisan elections held in August and November.

Yes, the proposed resolution is full of language supporting lofty ideals. It mentions local control, concern over low voter turnout, the complexity of making changes, partisan politics, and even the Hatch Act, whatever that is.

(The Hatch Act restricts the ability of federal executive branch employees and certain state and local government employees to participate in some political activities, such as running for office in partisan elections. Non-partisan elections — that’s okay. The city is concerned that this could “disqualify many local candidates and office holders.” As if anyone already working for government also should also be an officeholder, non-partisan election or not.)

Why should we be concerned? Why would the city council support the current system of spring elections? Doesn’t the city council always act in the best interests of the body politic?

Here’s the answer, quite simply: In the spring elections, voter turnout is low. This makes it easier for special interest groups to influence the election outcomes. These special interest groups are not your friends (unless you are a member of one of the special groups).

Voter turnout is low in spring elections. Really low. I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent. That’s less than the turnout for a single-question election on year later.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

In the same paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

Moving the spring elections so they are held in conjunction with the fall state and national elections will help reduce the electoral power and influence of special interest groups.

An example of special interests influencing elections

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports covering calendar year 2012. That year was the ramp-up period for elections that were held in February and March 2013. Two filings in particular illustrate the need for campaign finance and election reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who had indicated their intent to run in the spring 2013 elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from only two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents during an entire year. Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

You may be wondering: Do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. Both groups are symptomatic of the problem of special interests influencing low-turnout elections. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for details.

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Wichita campaign finance reform, and local elections in Kansas

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In this excerpt from WichitaLiberty.TV: An illustration of the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas. A related issue is the need to change the timing of local elections in Kansas. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

In January 2013 candidates for Wichita City Council filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who have indicated their intent to run in the spring elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents. As the election grew nearer, other parties contributed to these candidates. But for one year, only two groups made contributions.

So do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else? Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin. We’ve covered the benefits these parties have received, such as overpriced no-bid contracts and interest-free loans made to prop up an earlier failing loan from taxpayers. We need laws in Wichita and Kansas like some states and cities have. These are generally called pay to play laws, and they can be very simple, such as elected officials can’t vote on matters that enrich their significant campaign contributors. It could be that easy. See Kansas needs pay-to-play laws for more.

Here’s something that seems inconsequential, but is really important: The timing of our city council and school board elections. Currently these are held in the spring of odd-numbered years. These elections are also non-partisan, meaning that candidates don’t run as members of a political party.

I was asked to testify before a committee of the Kansas Senate. In preparation, I did some research. I found that for elections in Sedgwick County, voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent. Other research I found confirmed that this pattern is common across the country.

You may be asking: Is this a problem?

Political scientist Sarah Anzia has done the research. She wrote this in a research paper: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” For more on this issue, see Kansas spring elections should be moved.

Special interest groups benefit from these low-turnout spring elections. Do you remember the first story I reported on today, where campaign contributions for two Wichita city council members came from only two sources? That’s an illustration of special interest groups in action. It’s harmful to our city and its economy.

What happened to the bill I testified on? There was much opposition by cities and school boards and the special interest groups that benefit from these low-turnout, off-cycle elections. The bill went nowhere. I hope that it is revived this year for another attempt.

Wichita contracts, their meaning (or not)

Is the City of Wichita concerned that its contracts contain language that seems to be violated even before the contract is signed?

This week the Wichita City Council approved a development agreement for the apartments to be built on the west bank of the Arkansas River. The development agreement the council contemplated included this language in Section 11.06, titled “Conflicts of Interest.”

section-1106

No member of the City’s governing body or of any branch of the City’s government that has any power of review or approval of any of the Developer’s undertakings shall participate in any decisions relating thereto which affect such person’s personal interest or the interests of any corporation or partnership in which such person is directly or indirectly interested.

At Tuesday’s meeting I read this section of the contract to the council. I believe it is relevant for these reasons:

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

1. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer is a member of a governing body that has power of approval over this project.

2. Bill Warren is one of the parties that owns this project.

3. Bill Warren also owns movie theaters.

4. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer owns a company that manufactures barbeque sauce.

5. Brewer’s sauce is sold at Warren’s theaters.

The question is this: Does the mayor’s business relationship with Warren fall under the prohibitions described in the language of section 11.06? Evidently not. After I read section 11.06 I asked the mayor if he sold his sauce at Warren’s theaters. He answered yes. But no one — not any of the six city council members, not the city manager, not the city attorney, not any bureaucrat — thought my question was worthy of discussion.

(While the agreement doesn’t mention campaign contributions, I might remind the people of Wichita that during 2012, parties to this agreement and their surrogates provided all the campaign finance contributions that council members Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin received. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita. That’s a lot of personal interest in the careers of politicians.)

I recommend that if we are not willing to live up to this section of the contract that we strike it. Why have language in contracts that we ignore? Parties to the contract rationalize that if the city isn’t concerned about enforcing this section, why should they have to adhere to other sections?

While we’re at it, we might also consider striking Section 2.04.050 of the city code, titled “Code of ethics for council members.” This says, in part, “[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

That language seems pretty clear to me. But we have a city attorney that says that this is simply advisory. If the city attorney’s interpretation of this law is controlling, I suggest we strike this section from the city code. Someone who reads this — perhaps a business owner considering Wichita for expansion — might conclude that our city has a code of ethics that is actually observed by the mayor and council members and enforced by its attorneys.

Wichita does it again

Government takes and gives

Wichita never seems to learn. Its government, that is.

The last time Key Construction was awarded a no-bid contract for building a parking garage in Wichita, it almost cost Wichita taxpayers an extra 27 percent. Now the Wichita City Council has done it again, awarding Key another no-bid contract for a project paid for by taxpayers.

In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Today the council voted to award Key another no-bid contract. City officials said that the garage is too intertwined with the rest of the project to be put out to bid. They said that in 2011, too.

After the 2011 incident, Wichita city manager Robert Layton told the Wichita Eagle that he would seek a policy change against no-bid contracts. But that didn’t happen today.

So taxpayers are likely to overpay again, and for a project benefiting a politically-connected firm.

There is hope for the taxpayers, however. After the 2011 award to Key, then-council member Michael O’Donnell objected. It’s said that Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) also objected. That’s when the city decided to put the garage out to competitive bid and saved taxpayers $1.3 million.

It’s possible this could happen again. Meitzner was absent for today’s vote. New council member Jeff Blubaugh now represents the same district that O’Donnell did two years ago. Maybe Wichita taxpayers can ask O’Donnell to talk to Blubaugh about this. Perhaps as Meitzner prepares his bid to be the next mayor, he could use this as an opportunity to exercise leadership in favor of taxpayer stewardship instead of protecting the system of cronyism.

Key Construction and Mayor Carl Brewer

Should Mayor Carl Brewer have participated in voting on this matter? Here’s a section from the Wichita city code as passed in 2008:

“[Council members] shall refrain from making decisions involving business associates, customers, clients, friends and competitors.”

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction.

This no-bid contract for the garage is just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and its partners at taxpayer expense. Key, its executives, and their spouses are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members. Brewer and the head of Key Construction are apparently friends, embarking on fishing expeditions.

What citizens need to know is that Brewer and the Wichita City Council were willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. At the time, no city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Then, in July 2012 Brewer participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied. Brewer’s judgment was in favor of Key Construction, even though its bid had the same defect as the lower bid. This decision cost taxpayers and airport users an extra $2 million, to the benefit of a major campaign donor and fishing buddy.

In a Wichita Eagle story that reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget” we learned this: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.”

Despite this personal experience, Brewer wrote a letter recommending Key Construction (and only Key) for a project, observing “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” The mayor’s recommendation is not consistent with the reality of Key’s experience with the City of Wichita.

Lavonta Williams and James Clendenin

Although city code has no prohibition against council members voting to enrich their significant campaign contributors with no-bid contracts, there ought to be such a law. And when the recipient company is a very significant contributor, we can’t help but wonder about the wisdom and stewardship exhibited by the council.

In 2012, as incumbent council members Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) were preparing to run for re-election, their campaigns, that year, were financed entirely by two sources. One of these was a group of principals and executives of Key Construction.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, this was the only campaign money she received in 2012.

With relationships like these, can we have and confidence that the mayor and council are looking out for the interests of the citizens of Wichita, or for the interests of the significant campaign contributors and fishing buddies?

WichitaLiberty.TV August 25, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks leads viewers through the first two chapters of Henry Hazlitt’s book “Economics in One Lesson,” using cartoons created by Amanda BillyRock. It’s about looking at not only the immediate effects but at the longer effects of any act or policy; and tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups. Amanda uses the parable of the broken window to illustrate. Then, Bob wonders about an evaluation committee formed by the City of Wichita to vet downtown development partners: Did the committee overlook important information, and why didn’t the city council object as its members had previously? Episode 10, broadcast August 25, 2013. View below, or click here to view on YouTube.

Wichita’s evaluation of development team should be reconsidered

Dump truck carrying coinsIn an effort to avoid mistakes made in the past and inspire confidence in the process, parties wishing to receive economic development subsidies for projects in downtown Wichita are evaluated on a variety of measures. The evaluation matrix released for a project to be considered next week by the Wichita City Council, however, ought to be recalculated.

City documents describe one of two competing projects as this: “River Vista is proposed by River Vista LLC, a development group comprised of George Laham, Dave Burk, Dave Wells and Bill Warren.”

wichita-evaluation-matrix-2013-08

It’s this ownership team that ought to cause the city concern. Two of the evaluation criteria are “Past project experience with the City of Wichita” and “References, especially from other municipal partners.” This development team was awarded the maximum number of points possible for each (points being a positive measure). Here are a few things that the evaluation committee may not have considered when awarding these points.

Dave Wells: Wells is president of Key Construction. Last year the Wichita Eagle reported on “city-financed downtown parking garages that spiraled well over budget.” Noting the cost overruns, reporter Bill Wilson wrote: “The most recent, the 2008 WaterWalk Place garage built by Key Construction, an original partner in the WaterWalk project, came in $1.5 million over budget at almost $8.5 million. That’s the biggest parking garage miss, according to figures from the city’s office of urban development, although the 2004 Old Town Cinema garage built by Key Construction came in almost $1 million over budget at $5.225 million.” (Wichita city manager proposes eliminating no-bid construction projects.)

Despite these two cost overruns on city projects, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer wrote in a letter recommending Key Construction on a different matter: “Key is known for their consistent quality construction, budget control and on schedule delivery.” Maybe that’s what the evaluation committee relied on.

Also, two years ago Key Construction proposed — and was awarded by the city council — a no-bid contract for a parking garage. But the city later put the contract to competitive bid. Key, which first bid $6 million, later bid $4.7 million. This no-bid contract awarded to Key was cronyism in the extreme. If the desire of the majority of the city council, including Mayor Carl Brewer, had been realized, Wichita taxpayers would have sent an extra — and unnecessary — $1.3 million to a politically-connected construction company. See Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita for an example of how Key Construction has mastered political cronyism.

By the way, the mayor’s relationship with Wells means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

Dave Burk, Dave Wells: These two were original partners in WaterWalk, which has received over $40 million in subsidy, with little to show for results.

Dave Burk: He’s received many millions from many levels of government, but still thinks he doesn’t get enough. This is what we can conclude by his appeal of property taxes in a TIF district. Those taxes, even though they are rerouted back to him for his benefit, were still too high for his taste, and he appealed. The Wichita Eagle reported in the article (Developer appealed taxes on city-owned property): “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney.”

rebenstorf-quote-dave-burkA number of Wichita city hall officials were not pleased with Burk’s act. According to the Eagle reporting, Burk was not authorized to do what he did: “Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”

Council member Jeff Longwell was quoted by the Eagle: “‘We should take issue with that,’ he said. ‘If anyone is going to represent the city they obviously have to have, one, the city’s endorsement and … two, someone at the city should have been more aware of what was going on. And if they were, shame on them for not bringing this to the public’s attention.'”

Council member Lavonta Williams was not pleased, either, according to her quotations: “‘Right now, it doesn’t look good,’ she said. ‘Are we happy about it? Absolutely not.'”

In a separate article by the Eagle on this issue, we can learn of the reaction by two other city hall officials: “Vice Mayor Jim Skelton said that having city development partners who benefit from tax increment financing appeal for lower property taxes ‘seems like an oxymoron.’ City Manager Robert Layton said that anyone has the right to appeal their taxes, but he added that ‘no doubt that defeats the purpose of the TIF.'”

The manager’s quote is most directly damaging. In a tax increment financing (TIF) district, the city borrows money to pay for things that directly enrich the developers, in this case Burk and possibly his partners. Then their increased property taxes — taxes they have to pay anyway — are used to repay the borrowed funds. In essence, a TIF district allows developers to benefit exclusively from their property taxes. For everyone else, their property taxes go to fund the city, county, school district, state, fire district, etc. But not so for property in a TIF district.

This is what is most astonishing about Burk’s action: Having been placed in a rarefied position of receiving many millions in benefits, he still thinks his own taxes are too high. Now he wants more city taxpayer subsidy.

warren-bailout-poses-dilemma

Bill Warren: In 2008 the Old Town Warren Theater was failing and its owners — Bill Warren being one — threatened to close it and leave the city with a huge loss on a TIF district formed for the theater’s benefit. Faced with this threat, the city made a no-interest and low-interest loan to the theater. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Besides Warren, you may — or may not — be surprised to learn that the theater’s partners included Dave Wells and Dave Burk, the same two men mentioned above. Also, Mayor Brewer’s relationship with Warren means he should not participate in voting on this matter.

With the history of these parties working in public-private partnerships, the Wichita City Council needs to question the matrix delivered by the evaluation committee.

Could Wichita be the next Detroit?

That Detroit has declared bankruptcy: Does this mean anything for Wichita? From time to time we see news stories wondering if there is a parallel between these two cities — one known as Motor City, and the other as the Air Capital.

wichita-detroit-job-industry-concentration

The similarity is the concentrated nature of the economies of the two cities. Both have, as can be seen in the nearby chart, a greater percentage of jobs in manufacturing than does the United States as a whole.

Furthermore, when considering the dominant manufacturing industry in each city, we see that Wichita is more concentrated in aviation than Detroit is in automobiles. Much more concentrated, 13 percent to six percent.

Joseph Ashby on Wichita and Detroit.

On his radio show, Joseph Ashby talked about the business of making airplanes. He’s an aerospace engineer. The complexity of airplane manufacturing, he says, has protected the domestic industry from foreign competition. But that can change. I would say that change is likely.

Ashby also noted that our economic development programs heavily favor the aviation industry, which makes it more difficult for aspiring companies in other diverse industries to start and thrive. He isn’t the first to wonder about this. In 2010 Alan Cobb wrote:

What can we do to prevent Wichita from falling into the hole that is Detroit?

A simple answer is to continue throwing money and other goodies to keep the aviation companies. A better answer is we need to get rid of the notion that our elected officials and others have so much forethought to know what will or won’t be successful in 20 or 50 years. They don’t. …

While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three’s trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up. …

It‘s the classic example of the seen vs. the unseen. We see the new factory Pontiac builds. We don’t see the businesses that reduce their size, close or just move. The irony is we will still see the Pontiac factory after it is closed and boarded up.

For each tax dollar given to the auto industry, one is taken one away from entrepreneurs trying to create the next GM, Ford, Google or Apple. This may not be too bad the first time or the second time, but over years and decades, the results can be significant. The “next big thing” will be created in a state with a better tax and regulatory climate. (Detroit, corporate welfare and Wichita’s future)

This week the Sedgwick County Commission will be asked to make a forgivable loan — in essence, a grant of free money — to an aerospace company. The City of Wichita will likely be asked to do the same. The State of Kansas is probably offering additional business welfare, although the state won’t say. These actions increase the cost of business for the firms that we need to diversify our economy, and makes it more difficult for them to survive.

Here’s something else: Wichita has a lot of debt. Not Detroit levels, thankfully. But we can’t borrow even $30 million to build a new library without swelling debt ratios over acceptable limits.

How does Wichita have so much debt? Here’s an example. Recently the city spent $400,000 on a project to analyze aging fire stations with the aim of planning future projects. Fire stations are a long-lived capital asset, which is the type of asset and spending spending that is commonly financed with long-term debt. But an analysis to see if the spending is necessary and what type of spending is needed? This is current consumption and should not be paid for by long-term debt. Yet, the city paid for this with borrowed funds. This type of borrowing is common.

Finally, a big problem that contributed to Detroit’s problems is corruption. Wichita isn’t Detroit when it comes to corruption. But we could be headed that way. We have serious problems like overpriced no-bid contracts for the mayor’s fishing buddy, mysterious campaign contributions from a Michigan company involved in a large contract before the council, and a Methodist minister’s foray into real estate development and politics. We have city ordinances regarding ethics that seem to have a clear meaning, but the city attorney says they don’t apply.

Warren Theater Brewer's Best 2013-07-18

Notwithstanding these serious issues, it’s darkly comical to note this: Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer has voted several times to grant various forms of business welfare to movie theater owner Bill Warren and his partners. Then — and I swear I am not making this up — when Brewer started manufacturing and selling barbeque sauce, it was sold at Warren’s theaters. It still is, as of last week.

Are there no adults in the room?

WichitaLiberty.TV July 14, 2013

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In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks explains the attitude of the Wichita City Council regarding ethical behavior and reports on incidents that illustrate the need for campaign finance reform and pay-to-play laws in Wichita and Kansas. Also, Bob notices a document produced this year titled “Wichita Area Future Water Supply: A Model Program for Other Municipalities” and wonders why the city boasts of expensive water projects and long-term planning at the same time it’s forcing an austerity campaign on its citizens. Episode 4, aired July 14, 2013.

Starwood calls on Wichita

Office worker using telephone and computer

This Tuesday the Wichita City Council considers economic development incentives to Starwood Hotels & Resorts for a call center to open in Wichita.

Besides the usual problems with cronyism and corporate welfare (see Wichita-area economic development policy changes proposed for explanation of some problems), there are a few issues to consider regarding this item.

First, the site where the Starwood call center will be located is owned by Max Cole. He and his wife are significant campaign contributors to Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita). Under the concept of pay-to-play laws that Wichita needs, Clendenin should refrain from voting on this matter.

Second, a table of salaries supplied in the agenda packet makes an implied promise that probably won’t be kept. The table shows numbers of jobs (actually full-time equivalents), the hourly pay rate, and the annual wage. The annual wage, in all cases, is 2,080 times the hourly rate, meaning it is assumed that workers will work 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year.

Information from the Kansas Department of Commerce offers more detail. Initially, 495 full-time and 55 part-time jobs will be created. In year five, the total will be 860 full-time and 95 part-time total. There is also this notation: “The company will pay at least 50% of employee health insurance benefits.”

As you may be aware, one of the provisions of Obamacare is that if employees work over 30 hours per week, the employer must provide health insurance or be fined. As a result, many companies across the county are scaling back weekly work hours to less than 30.

We ought to ask if Starwood intends to hire employees who will work 40 hours per week, if they want to. Will the liberals on the Wichita City Council — Mayor Carl Brewer, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), and Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) — ask that Starwood operate under the standards of Obamacare? The table presents data as “full-time equivalents,” which provides room for Starwood to go either way.

Starwood is asking for a forgivable loan of $200,000 from Wichita, and another of the same amount from Sedgwick County. I asked the Kansas Department of Commerce if it would reveal the programs and incentives that Starwood will receive from the State of Kansas. It would not supply that information at this time, but I obtained the information by another means. The state describes its offer to Starwood as worth “up to $1,583,272.” Of this, $750,000 would be in the form of direct cash grants.

Here is a link to the relevant pages from the Wichita city council agenda: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentive Agreement with City of Wichita, Kansas. Also, from the Department of Commerce: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Economic Development Incentives offered by State of Kansas.

Ambassador Hotel Industrial Revenue Bonds

The City of Wichita should not approve a measure that is not needed, that does not conform to the city’s policy (based on relevant information not disclosed to citizens), and which is steeped in cronyism.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider authorizing industrial revenue bonds (IRB) for the Ambassador Hotel project in downtown Wichita.

In most cases, the major benefit of IRBs is exemption from paying property taxes. Since the Ambassador Hotel is located within a tax increment financing (TIF) district, it’s not eligible for property tax abatement. (Because of the TIF, the developers have already achieved the diversion of the majority of their property tax payments away from the public treasury for their own benefit.)

Instead, in this case the benefit of the IRBs, according to city documents, is an estimated $703,017 in sales tax that the hotel won’t have to pay.

The Ambassador Hotel has benefited from many millions of taxpayer subsidy, both direct and indirect. So it’s a good question as to whether the hotel deserves another $703,017 from taxpayers.

But if we follow the city’s economic development policy, the city should not authorize the IRBs. Here’s why.

The Sedgwick County/City of Wichita Economic Development Policy states: “The ratio of public benefits to public costs, each on a present value basis, should not be less than 1.3 to one for both the general and debt service funds for the City of Wichita; for Sedgwick County should not be less than 1.3 overall.”

The policy also states that if the 1.3 to one threshold is not met, the incentive could nonetheless be granted if two of three mitigating factors are found to apply. But there is a limit, according to the policy: “Regardless of mitigating factors, the ratio cannot be less than 1.0:1.”

In September 2011 the city council passed a multi-layer incentive package for Douglas Place, now better known as the Ambassador Hotel and Block One. Here’s what the material accompanying the letter of intent that the council passed on August 9, 2011 held: “As part of the evaluation team process, the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research studied the fiscal impact of the Douglas Place project on the City’s General Fund, taking into account the requested incentives and the direct, indirect and induced generation of new tax revenue. The study shows a ratio of benefits to costs for the City’s General Fund of 2.62 to one.

The same 2.62 to one ratio is cited as a positive factor in the material prepared by the city for Tuesday’s meeting.

So far, so good. 2.62 is greater than the 1.3 that city policy requires. But the policy applies to both the general fund and the debt service fund. So what is the impact to the debt service fund? Here’s the complete story from the WSU CEDBR report (the report may be viewed at Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research Study of Ambassador Hotel):

                                   Cost-benefit ratio
City Fiscal Impacts General Fund         2.63
City Fiscal Impacts Debt Service Fund    0.83
City Fiscal Impacts                      0.90

We can see that the impact on the debt service fund is negative, and the impact in total is negative. (A cost-benefit ratio of less than one is “negative.”)

Furthermore, the cost of the Ambassador Hotel subsidy program to the general fund is $290,895, while the cost to the debt service fund is $7,077,831 — a cost factor 23 times as large. That’s why even though the general fund impact is positive, the negative impact of the much larger debt service fund cost causes the overall impact to be unfavorable.

The city didn’t make this negative information available to the public in 2011, and it isn’t making it available now. It was made public only after I requested the report from WSU CEDBR. It is not known whether council members were aware of this information when they voted in 2011.

So the matter before the council this week doesn’t meet the city’s economic development policy standards. It’s not even close.

There are, however, other factors that may allow the city to grant an incentive: “In addition to the above provisions, the City Council and/or County Commission may consider the following information when deciding whether to approve an incentive.” A list of 12 factors follows, some so open-ended that the city can find a way to approve almost any incentive it wants.

A note: The policy cited above was passed in August 2012, after the Ambassador Hotel incentives package passed. But the 1.3 to one threshold was de facto policy before then, and whether a proposed incentive package met that standard was often a concern for council members, according to meeting minutes.

Timing and campaign contributions

Citizens might wonder why industrial revenue bonds are being issued for a hotel that’s complete and has been operating for over three months. The truly cynical might wonder why this matter is being handled just two weeks after the city’s general election on April 2, in which four city council positions were on the ballot. Would citizens disagree with giving a hotel $703,017 in sales tax forgiveness? Would that have an effect on the election?

Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by James Clendinin from parties associated with Key Construction. Clendenin will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Combine this timing with the practice of part of the hotel’s ownership team of engaging in cronyism at the highest level. Dave Burk and the principals and executives of Key Construction have a history of making campaign contributions to almost all city council candidates. Then the council rewards them with overpriced no-bid contracts, sweetheart lease deals, tax abatements, rebates of taxes their customers pay, and other benefits. The largesse dished out for the Ambassador Hotel is detailed here. This hotel, however, was not the first — or the last time — these parties have benefited from council action.

Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors.Campaign contributions received by Lavonta Williams from parties associated with Key Construction. Williams will vote tomorrow whether to grant sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017 to some of these donors. (Click for larger view.)

Campaign finance reports filed by two incumbent candidates illustrate the lengths to which Key Construction seeks to influence council members. Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received a total of $7,000 from Key Construction affiliates in 2012. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin. For Williams, these were the only contributions she received in 2012.

A table of campaign contributions received by city council members and the mayor from those associated with the Ambassador Hotel is available here.

Wichita mayor Carl Brewer with major campaign donor Dave Wells of Key Construction. Brewer will vote tomorrow whether to grant a company Wells is part owner of sales tax forgiveness worth $703,017.

This environment calls out for campaign finance reform, in particular laws that would prohibit what appears to be the practice of pay-to-play at Wichita City Hall.

There was a time when newspapers crusaded against this type of governance. Unfortunately for Wichitans, the Wichita Eagle doesn’t report very often on this issue, and the editorial board is almost totally silent. Television and radio news outlets don’t cover this type of issue. It’s left to someone else to speak out.

Wichitans have choices; perhaps not information

The Wichita Eagle publishes a voter guide before each election. While this is a useful civic service, readers of the newspaper might wonder what is the point of allowing candidates to make statements and claims without being held accountable.

Here are two examples of candidates responding to the question “Assess the city’s success in downtown revitalization so far. How do you see that role evolving in the future?”

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) responded as follows:

The trend in downtown redevelopment is showing a definite payoff in private investment exceeding $250 million since 2009. People are moving downtown and more private developers are starting projects in the area all of the time. I think that the city will still need to play a role in assuring that infrastructure, especially public green spaces and strategically placed parking, is in place so that private development can be attracted.

Council Member Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) answered this way:

Wichita adopted its Downtown Master Plan in 2010 following an 18-month process involving input from several thousand Wichitans. Since the plan’s adoption, there has been a growing confidence in downtown development, which has resulted in more than $150 million in private investment. The City’s role will be to continue to foster private investment supported by public infrastructure improvements where needed.

Both incumbent candidates claim a large investment in downtown Wichita. Although they didn’t make this claim in these answers, it’s usually claimed that the taxpayer investment in downtown pays off in the form of increased tax revenues. This is the cost-benefit analysis that the city relies on and uses to justify taxpayer investment in projects.

 Wichita Downtown Self-supporting Municipal Improvement District SSMID Assessed Valuation 2013-02 b

But evidence of a payoff for the taxpayer is hard to find. At the same time hundreds of millions in investment is claimed, the assessed value of property in downtown Wichita is declining.

We’re left to wonder whether readers of the Wichita Eagle are aware of the apparent contradiction between candidates’ claims and evidence from the real world.

On another issue, the influence of campaign contributions, readers of the Eagle will probably also be uninformed about candidates’ actions. In response to the question “How would you handle a vote on an issue involving a campaign contributor?” Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) supplied this answer:

No different than any other vote. I will vote for the best interest of the citizens Wichita and District III. I answer directly to the voters.

Williams answered the same question this way:

I would continue to handle it the way I always have. The city has good campaign finance laws that make sure no one individual or group can buy a council person’s vote. The law limits the contributions to a low enough amount that no one contribution can make or break a campaign. I treat each donation whether large or small the same and thank the community for their faith and support in what I do.

The candidates’ lofty claims of independence from campaign contributions are difficult to believe. There is simply too much money given, and the candidates’ actions are too suspect.

As an example, in 2012, these two candidates received campaign contributions from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren. Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

The problem is that both of these groups have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Williams was also the beneficiary of campaign contributions immediately before a Methodist minister asked the city to approve over two million dollars in tax increment financing. In 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

By the way, this project, under Harding’s management, foundered until the city council offered a bailout. By then Harding had found new partners. No surprise these partners included Key Construction, Williams’ sole source of campaign funds in 2012.

Wichitans who rely on the Wichita Eagle for advice on voting won’t likely be aware of these facts regarding these candidates.

Wichita economic development and the election

Ballot boxAs Wichitans decide their preference for city council members, voters should take a look at the numbers and decide whether they’re satisfied with our city’s performance in economic development.

As shown in the article Wichita economic statistics, Wichita is not doing well in key economic statistics. Debt has risen rapidly in recent years. Growth of private sector jobs lags far behind the nation and the state of Kansas, and government jobs have grown faster than private sector jobs. While inflation-adjusted spending per person is holding relatively steady, the city is cutting services and generally sending a message of budgetary distress.

Perhaps most astonishing: With all the public money poured into downtown redevelopment, with all the claims of new projects being competed, and with all the talk of building up the tax base, assessed valuation in downtown Wichita is declining.

In his recent State of the City Address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer called for increased effort and funding for economic development, specifically job creation. He, and most of Wichita’s political and bureaucratic leaders, believe that more targeted economic development incentives are needed to boost Wichita’s economy.

Whether these incentives are good economic development policy is open for debate. I don’t believe we need them. Kansas and Wichita should chart another course to increase economic freedom in Kansas. That, in turn, will make our area appealing to companies. But our local bureaucrats, most business leaders, and nearly all elected officials believe that targeted incentives are the way to attract and retain business.

Even if we believe that an active role for government in economic development is best, we have to conclude that our efforts aren’t working. In most years, the number of jobs that officials take credit for creating or saving is just a small part of the labor force, often less than one percent.

Rarely mentioned are the costs of creating these jobs. These costs have a negative economic impact on those who pay them. This means that economic activity and jobs are lost somewhere else in order to pay for the incentives.

Also, some of these jobs would have been created without the city’s efforts. All the city should take credit for is the marginal activity that it purportedly created. Government usually claims credit for everything, however.

Several long-serving politicians and bureaucrats that have presided over this failure: Mayor Carl Brewer has been on the city council or served as mayor since 2001. Economic development director Allen Bell has been working for the city since 1992. City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf has served for many years.

Wichita City Manager Robert Layton has had less time to influence the course of economic development in Wichita. But he’s starting to become part of the legacy of Wichita’s efforts in economic development.

The incumbents running for reelection to city council have been in office varying lengths of time. All, however, subscribe to the interventionist model of economic development championed by the mayor. That’s the model that hasn’t been working for Wichita.

If voters in Wichita are truly concerned about economic development for everyone, next week’s election provides an opportunity to make a positive change by bring new voices to the city council.

Is graft a problem in Wichita?

Dump truck carrying coins

In his paper History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America Greg Schmid explains the problems that result from the “soft corruption” that pay-to-play laws combat.

Is this a problem in Wichita? Is it possible that “Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefit of corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices” in Wichita?

Yes. Absolutely. As explained in In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform, we have a problem.

An example: In August 2011 the Wichita City Council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. Both of these parties are heavy campaign contributors to nearly all city council members.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

As elections approach, Wichita voters ought to remember that the three incumbents running for reelection all accepted campaign contributions from the parties that they voted to reward with an overpriced no-bid construction contract.

Following, Greg Schmid explains the problem in this excerpt from History and Constitutionality of Pay-to-Play Campaign Finance Restrictions in America:

The Problem
Graft is nothing new in the world, especially soft “white collar” corruption involved in the award of government contracts based on “special relationships” between public officials and government contractors. Particular acts of corruption are often hard to detect, one at a time, but the aggregate effects of “Pay to Play” are reflected by the heavy financial toll that corrupted actors within our government system take on the taxpayer. Graft takes the collective wealth of working taxpayers and transfers that wealth to the benefitof corrupt government officials and their private sector accomplices. Graft increases the cost of government by motivating officials “on the take” to mismanage government project spending. An inside deal, that is good for the corrupt official personally, usually leads to a bad economic decision for the public because the extra cost of corruption must be passed on to the taxpayer; a bought politician tends to make distorted choices. This “mismanagement effect” is costly to the public trust. One dollar of corruption is estimated to impose a burden of $1.67 on the taxpayers. …

Efforts to make government transactions transparent are met with disdain and with incredulous personalized claims that people who don’t trust their public officials are just paranoid, and should not be allowed to interrupt the people’s business by prying into the inner workings of government procurements. Fear of being targeted for ridicule or worse by society’s powerful elite makes it easy to look the other way, live in denial, or just accept government corruption as the way of the world. This is the most dangerous attitude of all; the perception that our government system is just unethical and corrupt and that there is nothing anyone can do about it. By this attitude, the perception of pervasive corruption at all levels of government, citizens lose hope and lose faith in their governing institutions. When this fundamental disconnect occurs people disengage from government, and self-governance is at risk.

Lavonta Williams: ‘You don’t have to go there’

Do not enter sign

At a Wichita City Council meeting last August, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) advised taxpayers on what to do if they disagree with action taken by the council: Just don’t go there.

The topic that day was whether the council should decide to add fluoride to the city’s water, or should it let citizens vote on the matter. Williams expressed concern that if the council were to decide to fluoridate Wichita’s water, citizens would not be able to avoid ingesting the added fluoride. They wouldn’t have a choice.

By way of analogy, Williams counseled the concerned citizens: “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

Downtown Wichita issues not appreciated

Once again, the Wichita Eagle editorial board misses the point regarding downtown Wichita development.

There may be some that are opposed to downtown simply because it’s downtown, or for other silly reasons. That seems to be the focus of Rhonda Holman’s editorial today.

But speaking from a perspective of economic freedom and individual liberty, it’s government interventionism in downtown that I object to. This is what harms Wichita, not the fact that people are living and working downtown or anywhere else, for that matter.

The political cronyism involved in many projects in downtown Wichita is what harms our city. When government takes from one and gives to another, everyone is worse off — other than the recipients. I understand that it’s easy to look at a subsidized project — be it downtown or elsewhere — and see people working at jobs. It’s much more difficult, however, to see the harm that the government intervention causes: Prosperity and jobs are lost due to inefficient government allocation of capital through political, not market, mechanisms. In the whole, we are worse off, not better.

If you don’t believe this — if you insist that the city government can create jobs and prosperity through its interventions, and that these have no net cost — then you have to ask why the city is not involved in more development.

It is the principled objection to government involvement that many do not understand, including, I think, the Wichita Eagle editorial board. An example: In September 2011, after I and others started a campaign to overturn a city council decision to award a tax subsidy to the Ambassador Hotel, the hotel’s lead developer asked to meet with me. In the meeting I explained that I would oppose the city’s action if applied to any hotel, located anywhere in Wichita, owned by anyone. He said that he sensed my opposition was based on principle, and I agreed.

The curious thing is that this seemed to puzzle him — that people would actually apply principles to politics.

The political allocation of investment capital in Wichita leads to problems of the appearance of impropriety, if not actual impropriety. There is a small group of people that repeatedly receive large amounts of taxpayer subsidy. These people and others associated with their companies regularly contribute to the campaign funds of city council members and candidates. These council members then vote to grant these people taxpayer-funded subsidy, year after year.

City council members also vote to award them with no-bid contracts. That’s terrible government policy. Especially when one recent contract was later put to competitive bid, and turned out to cost much less than the no-bid price. City council members, all except one, were willing to award their significant campaign contributors with an overpriced no-bid contract at taxpayer expense.

The company that won the no-bid contract was Key Construction. Its owners and executives were the sole contributors to the campaign fund of Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita), also running for reelection this spring, and also having voted for the no-bid contract for Key, also received many contributions from Key and its executives in 2012. That company, along with person associated with one other company, were the sole source of Clendenin’s campaign funding that year.

Doesn’t the Wichita Eagle editorial board see a problem here? Doesn’t the newsroom?

There was a time when newspaper opinion editors crusaded against this type of behavior.

Newspaper editorial writers ought also to be concerned about how taxpayer funds are spent. The City of Wichita, however, has established non-profit organizations to spend taxpayer funds. The Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, for example, is funded almost exclusively through taxes. Yet, it claims that it is not a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act, and therefore need not fulfill records requests seeking to bring transparency as to how the agency spends its taxpayer funds. The city, inexplicably, backs WDDC in this interpretation of law that is contrary to the interests of citizens.

Secrecy of this type regarding taxpayer funds is not good public policy. There was a time when newspaper editors railed against government secrecy like this.

We need a newspaper editorial board that understands principle vs. political expediency. As a first step, let’s ask for an editorial board that recognizes these abuses of citizens and is willing to talk about them.

Carl Brewer: The state of Wichita, 2013

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, State of the City Address, January 29, 2013

Much like President Barack Obama in his recent inaugural address, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer displayed his collectivist instincts in his “State of the City” address for 2013. His speech, as prepared, may be read here.

Opening, the mayor said “Wichita has overcome great challenges in the past and will overcome these as well, but we’ll need to work together.”

Near the close, the mayor said “THE TIME FOR ACTION IS NOW! We have reached a point where we MUST come together as a community, and create a plan that defines our priorities and the City we are to become.” And then: “For all of our differences, I have never doubted this community’s ability to come together and protect what matters most.” (The capitalization is in the mayor’s prepared text.)

But what’s really important to Wichita is economic development. Regarding that, Brewer said this:

As we struggle to compete for new businesses and new jobs, especially in light of job losses in aviation, we must face the reality that we are competing with other cities that offer economic incentives for business development and expansion. If we want to be IN the game, we need to PLAY the game, but we have no dedicated funding source for economic development. If we’re serious about finding new jobs for our people — and I am — we must change this scenario as soon as possible. Where will those incentive dollars come from? (Capitalization, again, is from the original.)

The idea of a dedicated funding source for economic development is something that many in Wichita would support. Many would oppose it, too. But instead of just lobbing rhetorical questions (Where will those incentive dollars come from?), the mayor should give us some answers. Or, at least make a specific proposal. Does the mayor recommend a sales tax increase? Or allocating specific levels of property tax to economic development? (The city is doing this on a temporary basis.) Or asking the state legislature to fund Wichita’s economic development, as we insist the legislature fund our airline subsidy program?

Whatever it is, Mayor Brewer, give us some specific ideas as to how you want to raise this money, and how you would spend it.

It’s that spending, I think, that people in Wichita have concern over. The cumulative record of Brewer, the city council, and city bureaucratic staff hasn’t inspired trust and confidence. Giving the city additional dollars to spend on economic development is not a wise investment.

For example, the mayor says that subsidizing downtown development is good economic development strategy. But we see the mayor and nearly all council members voting to give an overpriced no-bid contract to their significant campaign contributors. This happened despite the company’s large cost overruns on previous no-bid contracts awarded by the city. Is that good economic development practice?

We see the city council sitting in a quasi-judicial role, adjudicating the award of an airport construction contract when one of the parties is a significant campaign contributor. In fact, Key Construction — the company that prevailed in that decision — through its principals and executives, was the sole source of campaign funds raised by Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) in 2012 as she prepared to run for reelection this spring.

Key’s executives also contributed heavily to James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) last year. He’s running this spring, too.

At the time this airport contract was being handled, Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita) was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission. Campaign finance reports revealed contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan construction company. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new airport terminal, and that Longwell would be voting on that contract, provide a clue?

Or: A movie theater owner and business partners contribute to the mayor’s (and other) campaigns. Mayor and council vote to give a no-interest and low-interest loan and tax breaks to theater owner and his partners. Mayor goes into barbeque sauce business. Mayor’s barbeque sauce is now sold at movie theater.

Doesn’t Carl Brewer see anything wrong with this? Don’t his advisors tell him that this creates the appearance of impropriety? Does the mayor consider whether these actions make a positive impression on those who might want to invest in Wichita?

We see the city awarding economic development incentives that were not necessary for the project to proceed. It took a special election to teach the mayor and council that lesson. By the way, that unneeded and rejected incentive was awarded to the significant campaign contributors of Mayor Brewer and most council members.

We see the city taking credit for building up the tax base, yet giving away tax revenue in the form of property tax abatements, IRBs, tax increment financing, and STAR bonds.

The bureaucratic missteps: The Southfork TIF district is just the latest example.

The lack of respect for citizens’ right to know how taxpayer funds are spent is another troubling aspect of Brewer’s tenure as mayor. None of the words “accountability,” “transparency,” or “open government” were mentioned in the mayor’s address this year, as they have been in the past. No sense in calling attention to an area where the city has failed, I suppose.

All this is done in the name of economic development and jobs. But Wichita is underperforming Kansas and the nation in these areas. Under Brewer’s leadership, however, we are overachieving in the advancement of cronyism and its ills.

The record indicates that our officeholders, and those who advise them, are not worthy of our trust, and certainly not more taxes for economic development.

After last year’s State of the City speech, I noted “Wichita’s mayor is openly dismissive of economic freedom, free markets, and limited government, calling these principles of freedom and liberty ‘simplistic.’ Instead, his government prefers crony capitalism and corporate welfare.”

I also wrote: “Relying on economic freedom, free markets, and limited government for jobs and prosperity means trusting in free people, the energy of decentralized innovation, and spontaneous order. A government plan for economic development is the opposite of these principles.”

This year, the outlook for economic freedom and limited government in Wichita is gloomier than ever before. The door for those who wish to profit through cronyism is wide open. We’ll have to hope that, somehow, Wichita can learn to thrive under this regime.

Campaign contributions show need for reform in Wichita

Candidates for Wichita City Council have filed campaign finance reports, and the filings illustrate the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

Two incumbents, both who have indicated their intent to run in the spring elections, received campaign contributions in 2012 from two sources: A group of principals and executives of Key Construction, and another group associated with theater owner Bill Warren.

The incumbent candidates receiving these contributions are Wichita City Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) and Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita).

Except for $1.57 in unitemized contributions to Clendenin, these two groups accounted for all contributions received by these two incumbents.

Those associated with Key Construction gave a total of $7,000. Williams received $4,000, and $3,000 went to Clendenin.

Those associated with Warren gave $5,000, all to Clendenin.

So do these two groups have an extraordinarily keen interest in Wichita city government that’s not shared by anyone else?

Yes they do, and it’s not benevolent. Both have benefited from the cronyism of the Wichita City Council, in particular members Williams and Clendenin.

Here’s one example, perhaps the worst. In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

Both Williams and Clendenin voted for this no-bid contract that was contrary to the interests of taxpayers. They didn’t vote for this reluctantly. They embraced it.

Last summer Williams and Clendenin, along with the rest of the council, participated in a decision to award the large contract for the construction of the new Wichita airport to Key Construction, despite the fact that Key was not the low bidder. The council was tasked to act in a quasi-judicial manner, to make decisions whether discretion was abused or whether laws were improperly applied.

Judges shouldn’t preside over decisions that hugely enrich their significant campaign contributors. No matter what the merits of the case, this is bad government.

Did Key’s political involvement and campaign contributions play a role in the council awarding the company a no-bid garage contract and the airport contract? Key Construction executives and their spouses are among a small group who routinely make maximum campaign contributions to candidates. These candidates are both liberal and conservative, which rebuts the presumption that these contributions are made for ideological reasons, that is, agreeing with the political positions of candidates. Instead, Key Construction and a few others are political entrepreneurs. They seek to please politicians and bureaucrats, and by doing so, receive no-bid contracts and other benefits. This form of cronyism is harmful to Wichita taxpayers, as shown by the Ambassador Hotel garage.

Warren and his business partners have received largess from the council, too. In 2008 (before Clendenin joined the council) the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

Wichita’s need for campaign finance reform

The campaign finance reports of Williams and Clendenin reinforce and spotlight the need for campaign finance reform in Wichita and Kansas.

When it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. Citizens are working on this initiative on several fronts. Some find the actions of these candidates so distasteful and offensive that they are willing to take to the streets to gather thousands of signatures to force the Wichita City Council to act in a proper manner.

That huge effort shouldn’t be necessary. Why not? The politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t give to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a “pay-to-play” law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Wichita, again, fails at open government

The Wichita City Council, when presented with an opportunity to increase the ability of citizens to observe the workings of the government they pay for, decided against the cause of open government, preferring to keep the spending of taxpayer money a secret.

The occasion was consideration of renewing its contract with Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. I asked, as I have in the past for this agency and also for Wichita Downtown Development Corporation and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, that they consider themselves to be what they are: public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

In the past I’ve argued that Go Wichita is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act. But the city disagreed. And astonishingly, the Sedgwick County District Attorney agrees with the city’s interpretation of the law.

So I asked that we put aside the law for now, and instead talk about good public policy. Let’s recognize that even if the law does not require Go Wichita, WDDC, and GWEDC to disclose records, the law does not prohibit them from fulfilling records requests.

Once we understand this, we’re left with these questions:

Why does Go Wichita, an agency funded almost totally by tax revenue, want to keep secret how it spends that money, over $2 million per year?

Why is this city council satisfied with this lack of disclosure of how taxpayer funds are spent?

Why isn’t Go Wichita’s check register readily available online, as it is for Sedgwick County?

For that matter, why isn’t Wichita’s check register online?

It would be a simple matter for the council to declare that the city and its taxpayer-funded partner agencies believe in open government. All the city has to have is the will to do this. It takes nothing more.

Only Wichita City Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) gets it, and yesterday was his last meeting as a member of the council. No other council members would speak up in favor of citizens’ right to open government.

But it’s much worse than a simple failure to recognize the importance of open government. Now we have additional confirmation of what we already suspected: Many members of the Wichita City Council are openly hostile towards citizens’ right to know.

In his remarks, Wichita City Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) apologized to the Go Wichita President that she had become “a pawn in the policy game.” He said it was “incredibly unfair that you get drawn into something like this.”

He added that this is a matter for the Attorney General and the District Attorney, and that not being a lawyer, she shouldn’t be expected to understand these issues. He repeated the pawn theme, saying “Unfortunately there are occasions where some people want to use great people like yourself and [Wichita Downtown Development Corporation President] Jeff Fluhr as pawns in a very tumultuous environment. Please don’t be deterred by that.”

Mayor Brewer added “I would have to say Pete pretty much said it all.”

We’ve learned that city council members rely on — as Randy Brown told the council last year — facile legal reasoning to avoid oversight: “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

But by framing open government as a legal issue — one that only lawyers can understand and decide — Wichita city government attempts to avoid criticism for their attitude towards citizens.

It’s especially absurd for this reason: Even if we accept the city’s legal position that the city and its quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded are not required to fulfill records request, there’s nothing preventing from doing that — if they wanted to.

In some ways, I understand the mayor, council members, and bureaucrats. Who wants to operate under increased oversight?

What I don’t understand is the Wichita news media’s lack of interest in this matter. Representatives of all major outlets were present at the meeting.

I also don’t understand what Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) suggested I do: “schmooze” with staff before asking for records. (That’s not my word, but a characterization of Williams’ suggestion made by another observer.)

I and others who have made records requests of these quasi-governmental taxpayer-funded organizations have alleged no wrongdoing by them. But at some point, citizens will be justified in wondering whether there is something that needs to be kept secret.

The actions of this city have been noticed by the Kansas Legislature. The city’s refusal to ask its tax-funded partners to recognize they are public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act is the impetus for corrective legislation that may be considered this year.

Don’t let this new law be known as the “Wichita law.” Let’s not make Wichita an example for government secrecy over citizens’ right to know.

Unfortunately, that bad example has already been set, led by the city’s mayor and city council.

In Wichita, a quest for campaign finance reform

Actions of the Wichita City Council have shown that campaign finance reform is needed. Citizen groups are investigating how to accomplish this needed reform, since the council has not shown interest in reforming itself.

Consider recent actions by the council and its members:

The common thread running through these incidents? Council members voting to enrich their campaign contributors. Each of these — and there are others — are examples of a “pay-to-play” environment created at Wichita City Hall. It’s harmful to our city in a number of ways.

First, overpriced no-bid contracts and other giveaways to campaign contributors isn’t economic development. It’s cronyism. It’s wasteful and abusive of taxpayers and erodes their trust in government.

Second: Citizens become cynical when they feel there is a group of insiders who get whatever they want from city hall at the expense of taxpayers. At one time newspaper editorial pages crusaded against cronyism like this. But no longer in Wichita.

Additionally, when it is apparent that a “pay-to-play” environment exists at Wichita City Hall, it creates a toxic and corrosive political and business environment. Companies are reluctant to expand into areas where they don’t have confidence in the integrity of local government. Will I find my company bidding against a company that made bigger campaign contributions than I did? If I don’t make the right campaign contributions, will I get my zoning approved? Will my building permits be slow-walked through the approval process? Will my projects face unwarranted and harsh inspections? Will my bids be subjected to microscopic scrutiny?

We need laws to prohibit Wichita city council members from voting on or advocating for decisions that enrich their significant campaign contributors. A model law for Wichita is a charter provision of the city of Santa Ana, in Orange County, California, which states: “A councilmember shall not participate in, nor use his or her official position to influence, a decision of the City Council if it is reasonably foreseeable that the decision will have a material financial effect, apart from its effect on the public generally or a significant portion thereof, on a recent major campaign contributor.”

We’d also need to add — as does New Jersey law — provisions that contributions from a business owner’s spouse and children will be deemed to be from the business itself. Additionally the contributions of principals, partners, officers, and directors, and their spouses, are considered to be from the business itself for purposes of the law. These provisions are important, as many city council members in Wichita receive campaign contributions from business owners’ family members and employees as a way to skirt our relatively small contribution limits.

Such campaign finance reform would not prohibit anyone from donating as much as they want (under the current restrictions) to any candidate. Nor would the law prevent candidates from accepting campaign contributions from anyone.

This reform, however, would remove the linkage between significant contributions and voting to give money to the contributor. This would be a big step forward for Wichita, its government, and its citizens.

Proponents see three paths towards campaign finance reform. One would be to press for a law in the upcoming session of the Kansas Legislature. Such a law would be statewide in scope, and could apply to city councils, county commissions, school boards, and other elective bodies.

A second path would be to use the municipal initiative process, which was used by community water fluoridation advocates in Wichita this year. Under this process, a group writes a proposed ordinance. Then, it must collect about 6,200 valid signatures on petitions. If a successful petition is verified, the city council must either (a) pass the ordinance as written, or (b) set an election. For the fluoridation initiative the council voted to call an election, which was held as part of the November general election. (The initiative failed to obtain a majority of votes, so the proposed ordinance did not take effect.)

There is also a third path, which is for the Wichita City Council to recognize the desirability of campaign finance reform and pass such an ordinance on its own initiative.

If we take the affected parties at their word, this third path should face little resistance. That’s because politicians who accept these campaign contributions say it doesn’t affect their voting, and those who give the contributions say they don’t do it to influence votes.

If politicians and contributors really mean what they say, there should be no opposition to such a law. Citizens should ask the Wichita City Council to pass a campaign finance reform ordinance that prohibits voting to enrich significant campaign contributors.

Incidents

In 2008 the Wichita City Council approved a no- and low-interest loan to Bill Warren and his partners. Reported the Wichita Eagle: “Wichita taxpayers will give up as much as $1.2 million if the City Council approves a $6 million loan to bail out the troubled Old Town Warren Theatre this week. That’s because that $6 million, which would pay off the theater’s debt and make it the only fully digital movie theater in Kansas, would otherwise be invested and draw about 3 percent interest a year.”

When questioned about election donations:

“I would never do anything because of a campaign contribution,” said [former council member Sharon] Fearey, who received $500 from David Burk and $500 from David Wells.

“I don’t think $500 buys a vote,” said [former council member Sue] Schlapp.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” [Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said.

Also in 2008, the Reverend Dr. Kevass J. Harding wanted to spruce up the Ken-Mar shopping center at 13th and Oliver, now known as Providence Square. Near the end of June, Kevass Harding and his wife contributed a total of $1,000, the maximum allowed by law, to the campaign of Wichita City Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita). This was right before Harding appeared before the city council in July and August as an applicant for tax increment district financing (TIF).

These campaign contributions, made in the maximum amount allowable, were out of character for the Hardings. They had made very few contributions to political candidates, and they appear not to have made many since then.

But just before the Ken-Mar TIF district was to be considered for approval, the Hardings made large contributions to Williams, who is the council member representing Ken-Mar’s district. Harding would not explain why he made the contributions. Williams offered a vague and general explanation that had no substantive meaning.

In August 2011 the council voted to award Key Construction a no-bid contract to build the parking garage that is part of the Ambassador Hotel project, now known as Block One. The no-bid cost of the garage was to be $6 million, according to a letter of intent. Later the city decided to place the contract for competitive bid. Key Construction won the bidding, but for a price $1.3 million less.

The no-bid contract for the garage was just one of many subsidies and grants given to Key Construction and Dave Burk as part of the Ambassador Hotel project. In Wichita city elections, individuals may contribute up to $500 to candidates, once during the primary election and again during the general election. As you can see in this table complied from Wichita City Council campaign finance reports, spouses often contribute as well. So it’s not uncommon to see the David and DJ Burk family contribute $2,000 to a candidate for their primary and general election campaigns. That’s a significant sum for a city council district election campaign cycle. Click here for a compilation of campaign contributions made by those associated with the Ambassador Hotel project.

Council Member Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), in his second term as council member, led the pack in accepting campaign contributions from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project. For his most recent election, he received $4,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife. Total from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel project: $6,000. When Longwell ran for Sedgwick County Commission this summer, these parties donated generously to that campaign, too.

Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $3,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer received $5,000 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $4,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 DJ Burk, David Burk’s wife.

Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita) received $3,500 during her 2009 election campaign from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $2,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) received $3,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $2,500 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $1,000 from David Burk and his wife.

For his 2011 election campaign, Council Member James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) received $1,500 from parties associated with the Ambassador Hotel: $1,000 from parties associated with Key Construction, and $500 from David Burk and his wife.

What citizens need to know is that the Wichita City Council was willing to spend an extra $1.3 million of taxpayer money to reward a politically-connected construction firm that makes heavy campaign contributions to council members. Only one council member, Michael O’Donnell, voted against this no-bid contract. No city bureaucrats expressed concern about this waste of taxpayer money.

Finally: This summer while Longwell was campaigning for the Sedgwick County Commission, campaign contributions from parties associated with Walbridge, a Michigan-based construction company appeared on Longwell’s campaign finance reports. Why would those in Michigan have an interest in helping a Wichita City Council member fund his campaign for a county office? Would the fact that Walbridge is a partner with Key Construction on the new Wichita Airport terminal provide a clue?

These contributions are of interest because on July 17, 2012, the Wichita City Council, sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity, made a decision in favor of Key and Walbridge that will cost some group of taxpayers or airport customers an extra $2.1 million. Five council members, including Longwell, voted in favor of this decision. Two members were opposed.

On July 16 — the day before the Wichita City Council heard the appeal that resulted in Key Construction apparently winning the airport contract — John Rakolta, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Walbridge and his wife contributed $1,000 to Longwell’s campaign for Sedgwick county commissioner.

Then on July 20, three days after the council’s decision in favor of Key/Walbridge, other Walbridge executives contributed $2,250 to Longwell’s campaign. Besides the Walbridge contributions, Key Construction and its executives contributed $6,500 to Longwell’s county commission campaign. Key and its executives have been heavy contributors to Longwell’s other campaigns, as well as to Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and many other Wichita City Council members.

Surveillance state arrives in Wichita

In an effort to control crime in Old Town, Wichita is importing the police surveillance state. Right now the targeted area is a small part of the city during certain periods of time. But once camera use has started, it is likely to spread across town, especially given the enthusiasm of police and elected officials like Wichita city council member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita), according to Wichita Eagle reporting.

Many people may not be aware of the gross invasion of privacy that government cameras represent. Have you used the facial recognition technology in Google’s Picasa software? It’s uncanny how accurate it is. In the hands of government, it’s a concern.

Some surveillance cameras can read car license plates two blocks away. With facial recognition technology and optical character recognition, police don’t have to actually watch the live or recorded video to learn who has been in a location. Computers can create databases, updated in real time with who is where at what time. Alerts can be programmed, so that if a person or car is seen, police can be notified.

Then, we have to wonder whether the cameras work as advertised. The website You Are Being Watched, a project of the American Civil Liberties Union, comes to this conclusion: “An increasing number of American cities and towns are investing millions of taxpayer dollars in surveillance camera systems. But few are closely examining the costs and benefits of those investments, or creating mechanisms for measuring those costs and benefits over time. There is extensive academic literature on the subject — studies carried out over many years — and that research demonstrates that video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates. Several studies on video surveillance have been conducted in the UK, where surveillance cameras are pervasive. The two main meta-analyses conducted for the British Home Office (equivalent to the US departments of Justice and Homeland Security) show that video surveillance has no impact on crime whatsoever. If it did, then there would be little crime in London, a city estimated to have about 500,000 cameras.”

An irony is that law enforcement likes recording citizens, but not the other way around. As John Stossel has noted, police don’t like to be recorded. In some states its a crime to tape a police officer making an arrest. A video excerpt from Stossel’s television shows the attitudes of police towards being recorded. At Reason Radley Balko details the problem, writing “As citizens increase their scrutiny of law enforcement officials through technologies such as cell phones, miniature cameras, and devices that wirelessly connect to video-sharing sites such as YouTube and LiveLeak, the cops are increasingly fighting back with force and even jail time—and not just in Illinois. Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.”

Further irony is found in the parties promoting the cameras. Council member Williams was instrumental in crafting Wichita’s smoking ban. So too was Charlie Claycomb, president of the Old Town Association. One of their arguments was that everyone should have the right to enter any business and not be subjected to secondhand smoke. It was an argument based on civil liberties.

I’d like to be able to enjoy a cocktail in Old Town without my presence monitored and noted by the police. Is that a civil liberty worth preserving?

Wichita should reconsider this decision. It seems like an easy solution to a problem. But it’s another journey down the road of the ever-growing regulatory regime in Wichita.

Open records again an issue in Kansas

Responses to records requests made by Kansas Policy Institute are bringing attention to shortcomings in the Kansas Open Records Act.

Those who have made records requests in Kansas are probably not surprised that KPI has had difficulty in having its records requests respected and filled. In 2007 Better Government Association and National Freedom of Information Coalition gave Kansas a letter grade of “F” for its open records law. Last year State Integrity Investigation looked at the states, and Kansas did not rank well there, either. See Kansas rates low in access to records.

This week KPI president Dave Trabert appeared before the Sedgwick County Commission to express his concerns regarding the failure of Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to fulfill a records request made under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. Video is at Open government in Sedgwick County Kansas.

While commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau spoke in favor of government transparency and compliance with records requests, not all their colleagues agreed.

Dave Unruh asked Trabert if GWEDC had responded to his records request. Trabert said yes, and the response from GWEDC is that the agency believes it has complied with the open records law. This, he explained, is a common response from agencies.

Commission Chair Tim Norton expressed concern that any non-profit the commission gives money to would have to hire legal help, which he termed an unintended consequence. He made a motion to receive and file Trabert’s remarks, which is routine. His motion also included taking this matter under advisement, which is what politicians do in order to bury something. Unruh seconded the motion.

Peterjohn made a substitute motion that a representative from GWEDC would appear before the commission and discuss the open records act. This motion passed four to one, with Unruh in the minority. Even though Norton voted in favor of Peterjohn’s motion, it’s evident that he isn’t in favor of more government transparency. Unruh’s vote against government transparency was explicit.

Wichita school district records request

USD 259, the Wichita public school district, also declined to fulfill a records request submitted by KPI. In a press release, KPI details the overly-legalistic interpretation of the KORA statute that the Wichita school district uses to claim that the records are exempt from disclosure.

In a news report on KSN Television, school board president Lynn Rogers explained the district’s reason for denying the records request: “But some school board members with USD 259 in Wichita say, the numbers brought up in court are preliminary numbers. That’s the reason they are not handing them over to KPI. ‘We have worked very hard over the years to be very forthright and we’ve tried to disclose the information when we have it,’ says Lynn Rogers.'”

This claim by Rogers — if sincere — is a break from the past. In 2008 Rogers told me that it is a burden when citizens make requests for records.

Until recently the Wichita school district had placed its monthly checkbook register on its website each month, and then removed it after a month had passed. Rogers explained that the district didn’t have space on its servers to hold these documents. That explanation is total nonsense, as the pdf check register documents are a very small fraction of the size of video files that the district hosted on its servers. Video files, by the way, not related to instruction, but holding coverage of groundbreaking ceremonies.

City of Wichita

KPI has made records requests to other local governmental agencies. Some have refused to comply on the basis that they are not public agencies as defined in Kansas statutes. This was the case when I made records requests to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau.

In 2009 I addressed the Wichita City Council and asked that the city direct that WDDC follow the law and fulfill my records requests. (Video is at Video: City of Wichita and the Kansas Open Records Act.)

In my remarks, I told Mayor Carl Brewer and the council this:

The Kansas Open Records Act (KORA), in KSA 45-216 (a) states: “It is declared to be the public policy of the state that public records shall be open for inspection by any person unless otherwise provided by this act, and this act shall be liberally construed and applied to promote such policy.”

But in my recent experience, our city’s legal staff has decided to act contrary to this policy. It’s not only the spirit of this law that the city is violating, but also the letter of the law as well.

Recently I requested some records from the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Although the WDDC cooperated and gave me the records I requested, the city denies that the WDDC is a public agency as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act.

This is an important issue to resolve.

In the future, requests may be made for records for which the WDDC may not be willing to cooperate. In this case, citizens will have to rely on compliance with the law, not voluntary cooperation. Or, other people may make records requests and may not be as willing as I have been to pursue the matter. Additionally, citizens may want to attend WDDC’s meetings under the provisions of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.

Furthermore, there are other organizations similarly situated. These include the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. These organizations should properly be ruled public agencies as defined in the Kansas Open Records Act so that citizens and journalists may freely request their records and attend their meetings.

Here’s why the WDDC is a public agency subject to the Open Records Act. KSA 45-217 (f)(1) states: “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

The Kansas Attorney General’s office offers additional guidance: “A public agency is the state or any political or taxing subdivision, or any office, officer, or agency thereof, or any other entity, receiving or expending and supported in whole or part by public funds. It is some office or agency that is connected with state or local government.

The WDDC is wholly supported by a special property tax district. Plain and simple. That is the entire source of their funding, except for some private fundraising done this year.

The city cites an exception under which organizations are not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

The purpose of this exception is so that every vendor that sells goods and services to government agencies is not subject to the Kansas Open Records Act. For example, if a city buys an automobile, the dealer is not subject simply because it sold a car to the city.

But this statute contains an important qualifier: the word “solely.” In this case, the relationship between the City of Wichita and the WDDC is not that of solely customer and vendor. Instead, the city created a special tax district that is the source of substantially all WDDC’s revenue, and the existence of the district must be renewed by the city soon. The WDDC performs a governmental function that some cities decide to keep in-house. The WDDC has only one “customer,” to my knowledge, that being the City of Wichita.

Furthermore, the revenue that the WDDC receives each year is dependent on the property tax collected in the special taxing district.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw is that in terms of both funding and function, the WDDC is effectively a branch of Wichita city government.

The refusal of the city’s legal department to acknowledge these facts and concede that the WDDC is a public agency stands reason on its head. It’s also contrary to the expressly stated public policy of the state of Kansas. It’s an intolerable situation that cannot be allowed to exist.

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, it doesn’t take a liberal application of the Kansas Open Records Act to correct this situation. All that is required is to read the law and follow it. That’s what I’m asking this body to do: ask the city legal department to comply with the clear language and intent of the Kansas Open Records Act.

The following year when WDDC’s contract was before the council for renewal, I asked that the city, as part of the contract, agree that WDDC is a public agency as defined in Kansas law. (Video is at Kansas Open Records Act at Wichita City Council.) Then-council member Paul Gray, after noting that he had heard all council members speak in favor of government transparency, said that even if WDDC is not a public agency under the law, why can’t it still proceed and fulfill records requests? This is an important point. The Kansas Open Records Act contains many exclusions that agencies use to avoid releasing records. But agencies may release the records if they want.

Any council member could have made the motion that I asked for. But no one, including Gray, former council member Sue Schlapp, former member Jim Skelton (now on the Sedgwick County Commission), Mayor Carl Brewer, and council members Jeff Longwell (district 5, west and northwest Wichita), Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), and Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) would make a motion to increase government transparency and citizens’ right to know. Wichita city manager Robert Layton offered no recommendation to the council.

Last year I appeared again before the council to ask that Go Wichita agree that it is a public agency as defined in the open records act. Randy Brown, who is chair of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government and former opinion page editor of the Wichita Eagle was at the meeting and spoke on this matter. In his remarks, Brown said “It may not be the obligation of the City of Wichita to enforce the Kansas Open Records Act legally, but certainly morally you guys have that obligation. To keep something cloudy when it should be transparent I think is foolishness on the part of any public body, and a slap in the face of the citizens of Kansas. By every definition that we’ve discovered, organizations such as Go Wichita are subject to the Kansas Open Records Act.”

Brown said that he’s amazed when public officials don’t realize that transparency helps build trust in government, thereby helping public officials themselves. He added “Open government is essential to a democracy. It’s the only way citizens know what’s going on. … But the Kansas Open Records Act is clear: Public records are to be made public, and that law is to be construed liberally, not by some facile legal arguments that keep these records secret.”

He recommended to the council, as I did, that the contract be contingent on Go Wichita following the Kansas Open Records Act.

Discussion on this matter revealed a serious lack of knowledge by some council members regarding the Kansas Open Records Act. In remarks from the bench James Clendenin (district 3, southeast and south Wichita) asked the city manager a series of questions aimed at determining whether the city was satisfied with the level of service that Go Wichita has provided. He then extended that argument, wondering if any company the city contracts with that is providing satisfactory products or service would be subject to “government intrusion” through records requests. Would this discourage companies from wanting to be contractors?

First, the Kansas Open Records Act does not say anything about whether a company is providing satisfactory service to government. That simply isn’t a factor, and is not a basis for my records request to Go Wichita. Additionally, the Kansas Open Records Act contains a large exception, which excepts: “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.” So companies that sell to government in the ordinary course of business are not subject to the open records law. Go Wichita is distinguished, since it is almost entirely funded by taxes and has, I believe, just a single client: the City of Wichita.

Finally, we should note that the open records law does not represent government intrusion, as Clendenin claimed. Open records laws offer citizens the ability to get an inside look at the working of government. That’s oversight, not intrusion.

Pete Meitzner (district 2, east Wichita) asked that there might be a workshop to develop a policy on records requests. He expressed concern that departments might be overwhelmed with requests from me that they have to respond to in a timely fashion, accusing me of “attempt to bury any of our departments in freedom of information acts [sic].” Such a workshop would probably be presented by Wichita City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf. His attitude towards the open records law is that of hostility, and is not on the side of citizens.

In making this argument, Mr. Meitzner might have taken the time to learn how many records requests I’ve made to the city. The answer, to the best of my recollection, is that I made no requests that year to the city citing the open records act. I have made perhaps a half-dozen informal requests, most of which I believe were fulfilled consuming just a few moments of someone’s time.

As to Meitzner’s concern over the costs of fulfilling records requests: The law allows for government and agencies to charge fees to fulfill requests. They often do this, and I have paid these fees. But more important than this, the attitude of council member Meitzner is troubling. Government should be responsive to citizens. As Randy Brown told the council, government should welcome opportunities to share information and be open and transparent.

Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) made a motion that the contract be approved, but amended that Go Wichita will comply with the Kansas Open Records Act. That motion didn’t receive a second.

Brown and I appeared on the KAKE Television public affairs program This Week in Kansas to discuss this matter. Video is at In Wichita, disdain for open records and government transparency.

Enforcement of Kansas Open Records Act

In Kansas, when citizens believe that agencies are not complying with the Kansas Open Records Act, they have three options. One is to ask the Kansas Attorney General for help. But the policy of the Attorney General is to refer all cases to the local District Attorney, which is what I did. The other way to proceed is for a citizen to pursue legal action at their own expense.

After 14 months, Sedgwick County DA Nola Foulston’s office decided in favor of the governmental agencies. See Sedgwick County DA Response to KORA Request to Wichita Downtown Development Corporation.

When newspapers have their records requests refused, they usually give publicity to this. The Wichita Eagle is aware of my difficulties with records requests in Wichita, as their reporters have attended a number of meetings where my records requests were discussed, sometimes at length. But so far no coverage of an issue that, were the newspaper in my shoes, would undoubtedly covered on the front page. Something tells me that KPI won’t get any coverage, either.

Additional information on this topic is at:

Wichita fluoridation debate reveals attitudes of government

Is community water fluoridation like iodized salt? According to Wichita City Council Member and Vice Mayor Janet Miller (district 6, north central Wichita), we didn’t vote on whether to put iodine in table salt, so Wichitans don’t need to vote on whether to add fluoride to drinking water.

There’s a distinguishing factor, however, that somehow Miller didn’t realize: Consumption of iodized salt is a voluntary act. Not so with fluoridated water.

At the August 21, 2012 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Miller went on to name other substances added to our food supply that she said are beneficial to health. We didn’t vote on these either, but again, consumption of these foods and the added substances is voluntary.

In her discussion, Council Member Lavonta Williams (district 1, northeast Wichita) said “Did you like the art that went down to WaterWalk? Maybe you didn’t. But you don’t have to go there.”

She also said we don’t have to go to the apartments that were built at WaterWalk, and we don’t have to stay at the Ambassador Hotel.

True, we can avoid these government-sponsored and subsidized places if we want to. But what Williams may have forgotten is that we can’t avoid being forced to pay for them.

Besides that, what does it say about a government where if we disagree with its actions, we’re told “you don’t have to go there”?

This confusion of government and voluntary action is troubling for the future of Wichita, and more broadly, our country.